Parham: Listening to difficult stories is a form of reparations

Opeyemi Parham, Op-Ed Contributor

As I have witnessed the national conversation on reparations with fascination, Evanston leads in quantifying harm and preparing to dole out financial damages. City Council acknowledging racially-related harm is a powerful beginning. 

I am from a Black family that settled in Evanston in the late 1920s; my people migrated during those decades of greatest documentable discrimination against Black Evanston residents. Eligibility for financial reparations is not what interests me. What I want this town to do is to listen — really listen — to narratives of what life was like for those Black Evanston residents. 

My family has roots in this country deeper than many white Americans. I am the fifth generation out of slavery, and have living descendants who are a full seven generations out of slavery. 

My maternal grandfather Alfred Parham arrived in Evanston with a wife and two children after fleeing land we owned in Union Point, Georgia. He was a Black man who attended a traditionally Black college for one year, before being called home to take over the farm when his own father died. Our family story as to why we left our home and our land, joining the Great Migration north was, “Alfred got out of Union Point one step ahead of the Klan!” 

Evanston was a land of milk and honey for upwardly-mobile Black folks. In the ’20s and ’30s, many Black residents who arrived became domestic help for the professors at Northwestern. Like many towns, there was a “right side” of the railroad tracks and a “wrong side.” For years, Alfred rented on the “wrong side,” then moved on to purchase a home just barely on the “right side” through a mortgage. As a child, I remember visiting my grandparents and loving the rumbling sound of the huge passenger trains that thundered past the house, just across the alley.

Evanston of the 1930s was known for its Black boarding houses, which gave the Black maids from wealthy Chicago homes safe haven on weekends from the too often sexually predatory attention of wealthy, white men. Modeling “appropriate female decorum” was a part of Evanston Black middle-class culture.

Living on the “right side” of the tracks meant my mother and her sister went to elementary and junior high schools in the 1940s where they were often the only Black kids in their class. That is its own kind of stressor, but Black students who desire the classic “American Dream” have long been aware of the massive amount of stress involved with attempted integration. They became excellent code-switchers. After college, the two of them worked as switchboard operators for the telephone company.

They didn’t sound Black at all.

Black Evanston residents were well aware of the power of being in a community where everyone funneled into one technically excellent high school on a 65-acre campus. All my aunts completed college as science majors in the 1940s and ’50s. My mother started college but did not graduate.

My mother’s 50th Evanston Township High School reunion happened around 2000. The reunion reflected the ETHS environment of the 1940s and ’50s because we Black folks had our own separate event. I was delighted to meet people who knew my mother; she had fled Evanston when she was around 21. I was 43 years old at the reunion. I attended in her honor, as my mother had already been dead for close to 10 years at that time. 

ETHS offered the Black alumni a tour of the updated campus, led by a chirpy white high school student. When we got to the athletic buildings, as she rattled off statistics about the Olympic-sized pool, I remember feeling a mounting tension. I remember wondering if any of the Black alumni would speak up. 

Someone did.

“You know, we Black students weren’t allowed to use that pool when we were students here.”

There was an awkward silence, and little joking off of the pain — “that doctor would diagnose every Black student as having athlete’s foot, and our parents just couldn’t fight it.” There were some comments about the separate and not equal Black YMCA, and memories of the separate Black prom. All examples of what de facto segregation looks like.

Then the tour moved on.

I was struck by how many in my own family had neither thrived nor survived in Evanston. Three generations of Parhams, living through the complexities of life in minimally integrated Evanston resulted in a generational pattern of great challenge. I was raised with a deep belief that “it is not safe to be Black, female, smart, sexy and powerful (defined as making money); They will kill you.”

Who is “they”? Possibly, not whom you might think.

More on that, next week.

Opeyemi Parham is a retired M.D. who writes as an artist, healing. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.